'Queen of the Desert' does not fall into cinematic royalty
“Queen of the Desert” – “I doubt there is anyone in the world as happy as I am now.” – Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman)
Gertrude Bell was a pioneer, an explorer during the turn of the 20th Century, a time when women were generally not pioneers or explorers. Gertrude’s circumstance is even more unique, because her adult life circled – literally and figuratively – around the Middle East, and she – an Oxford-educated Brit - was happiest when learning about this mysterious, ancient land, firsthand.
In “Queen of the Desert”, legendary writer/director Werner Herzog attempts to capture the life of another legendary figure and her internal fortitude to learn about the most captivating place in the world to her. Herzog – one who never shies away from a challenge – filmed Gertrude’s travels on location in Morocco and Jordan, and every single shot feels authentic, down to the snarls of camels and crunches of sand through vast desert landscapes. One particular trek through a Jordanian gorge certainly represents Herzog’s classic signature of improbably capturing breathtaking moments on camera.
Couple the pure visuals with an equally fascinating 20th Century individual, and one has the ingredients for a great film. Unfortunately, “Queen of the Desert” is not one. Over the course of 1 hour and 52 minutes, we mostly seem to witness Gertrude slowly, slowly trudge through the desert – with a team of men and camels – while some sweeping period music roars from the screen. Since the filmed-desert might look the same in any direction, the movie includes frequent, frequent cuts to a Middle East map with red lines outlining her routes to ensure that the audience knows exactly where Gertrude is heading next.
She had purpose for her travels, but cinematically, it becomes difficult to follow why she is traveling to Damascus, Tehran and Hayil. Gertrude has direction, but we, the audience, may feel directionless. Additionally, Herzog has Kidman narrate much of the film as a way to help explain her character’s feelings and decisions, rather than solely rely on the story itself to unfold on screen.
Men like Henry (James Franco) and Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) fawn all over Gertrude as well, but not a whole lot of romance or genuine feelings emanate from the screen. In fact, not a whole lot of noteworthy drama occurs over the course of the picture either, save one scene in the third act, when Gertrude needs to negotiate out of a seemingly impossible circumstance.
Walking out of “Queen of the Desert”, one can certainly gain a newfound respect and admiration for Gertrude Bell and her fearless approach towards her passions. On the other hand, after seeing this film – and unlike Gertrude – billions of people were happier than I was during my nearly two-hour experience.
Image credits: IFC Films